A year in the life of a Crime Writing MA

I’ve been really quiet lately – a combination of ill health and the fact I suddenly had 20,000 words of various essays to be completed and handed in for the MA – but I’m back to wellness now and have met all my deadlines so yay me!

When I first got accepted to the MA I was beyond excited… full-on ecstatically Christmas-is-coming-toddler excitement.  This has put a lot of pressure on me the whole year – it’s so important to me that I really wanted to do well.  No, beyond well.  I wanted to be perfect. Of course, that’s unrealistic – not necessarily for everyone, but for me.  I have learned such a lot this year that the idea I would have been perfect from the off is just laughable. I’m not even in the same country as perfect even now!  But I thought I’d share some things about writing that I always ‘knew’ but now I know!  It’s like having a baby – you know you’ll be tired, but until you’ve been through that body-quaking, interminable exhaustion you’ve got no idea just how much.

Writers make lots of decisions

I’m an English teacher and I was always kind of ‘yeah right’ about the analysis – I call it woowoo and tell the students that they need to get their woowoo head on and try to work out what exactly the author is trying to communicate.  I still don’t buy into a lot of it but even I have made a lot of deliberate choices this year.  Some of its based on gut.  But what is gut if not that same woowoo that students are looking for?  I’ve agonised over my narrative perspective this year.  For much of the year the novel has been inbalanced, with too much focus on my detective character and not enough on the linguist.  I think I’ve finally cracked it but it’s taken me a whole year to work out what my gut was telling me!  And that’s only the big stuff!  Imagine all the minor decisions I’ve made over the course of the year.  I know some big writers talk about the novels writing themselves, and maybe it is like that for them… especially if you’re sitting on twenty or so already.  For me, a complete novice to this, I am writing every single word of that novel myself.

Writing is a pain-staking process

I want you to imagine a cross-stitch pattern.  You’ve spent three weeks carefully following the pattern, counting your stitches, doing the most beautiful little crosses every seen on human cross-stitch before.  And then you realise that you had a fold on your pattern and every single stitch is in the wrong place.  You’ve two choices.  One, you ignore it.  I lied, this isn’t really a choice.  You cannot ignore it.  It will haunt your dreams.  It will be the first thing everyone else points out to you.  You will never escape the hideous lack of symmetry those stitches create.  So choice two.  You unpick it all.  Stitch by stitch.  And then you redo it all.  Stitch by stitch.  But wait!  What you actually thought was a fold in the pattern was actually a gap deliberately left by the pattern creators!  Ha! You have to redo it all over again.

I have had this experience with actual cross stitch but in case you’re in any doubt, this is a metaphor for writing.  I have unpicked and restitched my first 10,000 words at least ten times this year.  I think that’s pretty normal.  But again, every stitch I unpick, every word I delete, is a decision and a lesson.  I’m learning.  Word by agonising word.

Writers need the hide of an elephant

I am working on the bottom of an elephant, but I also need to work on the skin.  What I’ve found most surprising about this whole year is how emotionally fragile it has made me.  Part of that is the wanting it to be perfect thing.  But it goes way beyond that.  Even when people are saying positive things, I focus on the negative – maybe this is just me, but again having listened to a lot of authors this year, they’ve all spoken about that lack of self-belief.  That at any moment, they’re going to be outed as a fraud.  That’s the thing.  To be a writer is my absolutely dream.  To read and write crime all day, to go to crime festivals, to work with other crime writers and to entertain people with my crime is my dream.  But it doesn’t feel real that I should get to do that and make a living from it.  But conversely, I don’t have any disbelief about other people doing the job, just me!  So I need to develop my own thick skin and my own cheer squad.  And believe in myself!

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